When Islamists defend democracy

With democracy at stake in Iraq and Tunisia, top Islamists are rising to its defense.

A female employee of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission delivers voter cards in Basra, Iraq, for an Oct. 10 election.

It says something about progress in the Middle East that top Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia are crying out for democracy in their Muslim countries. Their public faith in individual liberties and rights is a timely counterpoint to the hardening of Islamist rule in Iran and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a highly influential religious authority, has called on voters to shed their apathy and participate “consciously and responsibly” in crucial parliamentary elections Oct. 10. “Make a good choice, otherwise the failures of the previous parliaments and the governments emanating from them will be repeated,” he said Sept. 29, referring to political leaders elected after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that planted democracy in Iraq.

The election, he added, is the best path for Iraq to “reach a hopefully better future than the past, and through which the risk of falling into the abyss of chaos and political stalemate will be avoided.”

While Mr. Sistani does not support parties or candidates, he advised voters to select a candidate in their districts who is the “most honest, who is interested in the sovereignty, security, and prosperity of Iraq.” His reference to “sovereignty” may be a call to rid Iraq of foreign influence, especially that of Iran and the United States.

In Tunisia, where a democracy sprang up during the 2011 Arab Spring, the leading Islamist party, Ennahda, has led calls to reverse a power grab by President Kais Saied. In July, the former law professor suspended parliament and seized near-total power, claiming the government was in political gridlock. Although he promised his actions were temporary, he has since cracked down on opposition and added to his powers. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who is Tunisia’s leading Islamist politician and the speaker of parliament, said the president had effectively “canceled the constitution.”

On Sept. 29, Ennahda called on all political and civil society groups to “defend representative democracy” through “all forms of peaceful struggle.” On Oct. 1, police blocked dozens of members of parliament from entering the legislature.

Many people in the Mideast who live under an authoritarian or strict Islamic ruler are probably aware of these hopeful calls for democracy by Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia. Reconciling democracy and sharia (Islamic law) is not always easy. But at least two countries are showing signs of hope that bear watching.

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